What does a toxic teenage dating relationship look like? The simple answer is when a couple should break up but for whatever reason they can’t.
This post uses pronouns that assume teen girls have more trouble breaking off relationships than teen boys do. This isn’t really true. Teen boys have a hard time with it sometimes too. Feel free to imagine your son when reading this if that’s relevant to your situation.
What are you supposed to do when your normally sensible daughter is so wrapped up in an insensible relationship that she can’t extricate herself?
- Put a stone in her shoe: I don’t mean literally. Work hard at creating cognitive dissonance. This is when someone points out something to you that makes you uneasy with your current situation. While they don’t outright tell you what to do, the thing they tell you causes mental conflict. Here’s an example of what I mean: I dated a guy for my senior year in college, the next year, and my first year of graduate school. My parents consistently told me he was skiddish about marriage. When I asked how they knew this they would tell me it is because he would never talk about our future as a “we.” This quietly ate at me until it became a big enough problem that it was driving me crazy. Eventually it’s the thing that did us in. My parents never said, “You need to end it with this loser! What are you thinking?” They just put a VERY UNCOMFORTABLE stone in my shoe.
- Set appropriate limits: If your daughter has a boyfriend who is truly detrimental to her health in some way, don’t support the relationship. Parents rarely have enough control over a teen that they can expressly forbid their son or daughter to date someone. When try to forbid a couple from seeing each other, teenagers end up lying and sneaking around. Now there’s even more behavior to be upset with, and it causes you to lose influence because your teen stops listening to you. What you can do though is refuse to support the relationship even though you don’t wholly outlaw it. If you replace the word “relationship” with “drugs,” you’ll know what to do. You wouldn’t allow your teenager to do drugs in your house. You wouldn’t give your teen money to buy drugs. You wouldn’t drop your teenager off somewhere to use drugs. Now put the word “relationship” back in those sentences. Don’t allow him in your house. Don’t give your daughter money to go out with him on dates. Don’t drop her off to see him. In simple terms, don’t enable.
- Control your opinion-sharing: “Stick with the facts, m’am.” Just call things as you see them. Don’t then go on to explain why what you see means your daughter’s boyfriend is Satan’s spawn. She is more likely to listen to you and confide in you if you only say what you observe or hear. It’s okay to tell her, “Samantha’s mom told me she saw your boyfriend kissing Jennifer after the football game.” It’s not okay to then go on and on about what a rotten cheater he is. The reason I say this is that your daughter is responsible for herself, and you’re only responsible for her. The focus needs to be on her. If Samantha’s mom really did see your daughter’s boyfriend kissing Jennifer after the football game and your daughter still wants to go out with him, have a gentle conversation with your daughter about why she’s struggling with self-respect. There are all kids of people out there who aren’t right for her. Your job as a parent is to help her have enough courage to pass on them.
I know this is hard. It’s really frustrating to see your child in a toxic relationship. Whether you’re a teen reading this, or you’re mom or dad, make sure you keep talking. Run your feelings by someone who will be very honest with you, and then start taking the steps to make a positive change.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT